As Joe Stellmacher watched his team partake in an intersquad scrimmage during preseason practice, he was looking at a lot of the same faces as the year before.
The Berlin head coach just wasn’t seeing a lot of seniors.
Once again the Indians will be short on players in their final season of high school football — the team opened practice this year with six seniors — but will be well ahead of where it was experience-wise as it looks to mount a challenge in the always tough Eastern Valley Conference.
“We’ll be young again. I said that last year, too, but we only have six seniors on the roster this year so we’ll be playing a lot of juniors and a lot of sophomores, even this year,” said Stellmacher, entering his third season as head coach. “The six seniors that we do have will contribute, as much as we can get out of them, but we’re going to have to rely on juniors and sophomores again this year.”
Playing such a young roster isn’t always the best approach in a conference that includes three 9-win teams from last season — Little Chute, Freedom and Waupaca, which was the Division 3 state runner-up — and a Winneconne squad that came within a whisper of a playoff win a year ago.
Throw in perennial postseason players like Xavier, Ripon and FVL, who are looking to get back to the playoffs and it’s a tough road for a young team.
But young and inexperienced are two different things.
And although the Indians will be sending plenty of non-seniors onto the field, it’s not it’s the first time for many of those players.
“We started five or six sophomores (last season) so you can see they are taking that next step as juniors,” Stellmacher said. “That experience they got last year was invaluable.”
The experience brought a different level of intensity when practice began in August and could translate to a more successful season than last year’s 1-7 campaign.
“We have a lot more energy all through the team,” junior David Miracle said. “We have captains all over the field and we’re just looking for the wins.”
Defense must improve
There’s no way to hide one of the weak areas on last year’s squad for the Indians.
Berlin surrendered an average of 37.6 points per game last season — a whopping 41.2 points per game in its seven losses — and held only one opponent to less than 28 points.
“We have to play better defense,” Stellmacher said. “We gave up quite a few yards last year. Tackling will be key and we have to eliminate the big plays.”
One of the players Stellmacher will be counting on to aid the defense will be senior linebacker Trevor Dawson, who returns as one of the top tacklers from last year.
Miracle and Richard Bloch are also expected to anchor the middle of the defense at defensive tackle positions.
“Yeah, definitely (we’ll be better). We’ll be better up front and secondary is doing good,” Dawson said. “We have to contain. Keep it all inside and box it in. Just head it to our linebackers.”
Stellmacher is also high on a pair of defensive ends in David Meza and Connor Hutchison — both players come in at about 6-foot-3.
“I like the size of our defensive ends,” Stellmacher said. “Nice tall rangy d-ends and hopefully they can have an impact on the game.”
Ross is boss
Anytime a quarterback returns from the year before it’s a benefit and even though junior Dakota Ross didn’t start every game under center for the Indians last year, he saw quite a bit of action and definitely picked up some key experience.
That should be helpful as he takes the reigns of the Berlin offense this season.
“He started about half of the games last year,” Stellmacher said. “He’ll have some experience at the QB spot.”
Ross is a dual threat in the backfield, but is a more natural runner than pure passer.
Stellmacher said he will have to perform in both areas if the Indians are going to be able to move the ball and put points on the board.
“We like to roll him out and get him moving,” Stellmacher said. “We’ll utilize his strengths, but he’s got to make the throws that a varsity QB needs to make.”
Ross’ most experienced target will be senior Ryan Viertel, who was one of the team’s top pass catchers last year and provides some leadership for the youthful unit.
Joining Ross in the backfield will be Miracle — a bruising fullback, who led Berlin in rushing last year — and sophomore Mitchell Kramer, who had success at the freshman level last year.
Miracle — nicknamed ‘Pork Chop’ — may have his carries tempered a bit this season as he also could spend time on the offensive line.
“Just for depth on offensive line; we don’t have a lot of numbers there ao we have to have him play some there,” said Stellmacher, who also highlted Block as a returning lineman. “(Miracle) is a load when he has the ball and we expect him to make a big jump for us.”
To Miracle, the key for the Indians’ offense isn’t who is playing where, but how well the team functions as a unit.
“O-line has to block, the running backs have to help each other. Everybody has to come together. Just be all together as a team,” he said.
One at a time
While most teams might be looking at a key section of their schedule, a matchup with a rival or trying to pinpoint the games that may decide their playoff chances, the Berlin players have just one thought in mind — Fox Valley Lutheran.
“We’re just looking at trying to in our first game right now. That’s our first goal,” Miracle said. “We just work on one goal — to beat the team on Friday night — and not get to full of ourselves or get too far ahead in the season.”
But as much as the team stays focused on each game, each week there is that carrot that is the WIAA postseason dangling out in front of them. The Indians haven’t made the playoffs since 2005 and haven’t won a playoff contest since 1989.
Although the EVC is one again loaded with talented teams, this year’s squad could be the one to end the drought.
“I’m pretty excited about this season,” Dawson said. “I think we’ll do well.”